The best crime fiction of 2019
The year got off to an excellent start with the 22nd Dave Robicheaux novel, The New Iberia Blues (Orion) – only the incomparable James Lee Burke could get away with a detective investigating “a misanthrope with the vision of Captain Ahab in his pursuit of the white whale”.
Hanna Jameson’s The Last (Penguin) is a dystopian Agatha Christie murder mystery set in the Alps in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, when – unsurprisingly – morality is nowhere as important as it used to be.
Set along the Scottish borders, Anthony J Quinn’s The Listeners (Head of Zeus) is a fascinating meditation on the nature of truth and a mind-bending variation on the locked-room mystery, in which the inmate of a psychiatric hospital confesses to a murder despite the impossibility of his being guilty.
Dervla McTiernan’s The Scholar (Sphere) invokes Ross Macdonald as Galway-based Garda detective Cormac Reilly discovers a whole family of skeletons in the closet while investigating the murder of a brilliant young pharmacist. (“There was always something morbidly fascinating about the super-rich. It was like sniffing at a piece of meat that had been hung a bit too long, that had a taint of rot about it.”).
Set in Derry, Dave Duggan’s crime fiction debut, Oak and Stone (Merdog), begins as a conventional murder mystery and evolves, via much Chandleresque wise-cracking, into an existential exploration of Northern Ireland’s policing.
Fans of historical crime fiction might want to search out JM Alvey’s Shadow of Athens (Orion), set in Pericles’ Athens, in which dramatist and amateur sleuth Philocles investigates why a corpse was dumped outside his door.
Set in the 1960s, Laura Lippman’s The Lady in the Lake (Faber & Faber ) functions equally well as a superb murder investigation and a love letter to Baltimore.
The best private-eye novel of the year is Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky (Doubleday), featuring the reluctant knight errant Jackson Brodie, in which Brodie lends the lie to his own assertion that “there was no meaning to anything. No morality. No truth.”
By some distance the best high-concept thriller of the year, Adrian McKinty’s The Chain (Orion) is a kidnap-gone-wrong yarn with a hell of a twist. Meanwhile, Claire McGowan’s What You Did (Thomas & Mercer) is steeped in #MeToo and #TimesUp as McGowan delivers one of the finest domestic noirs to date.
Every bit as political is Attica Locke’s Heaven, My Home (Serpent’s Tail), in which black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews investigates the Aryan Brotherhood against a backdrop of Donald Trump’s election.
Finally, Jess Kidd’s quirkily gothic historical mystery Things in Jars (Canongate) is a sumptuously readable delight from start to finish.
Meticulously imagined world
Jane Harper’s wonderfully atmospheric The Lost Man (Little Brown) slowly and carefully draws the reader into a completely believable, meticulously imagined world, and the thrills it delivers are heartfelt and human, and all the more powerful for that.
Blood Orange (Wildfire), the first novel by former barrister Harriet Tyce, captures well the romance and restless squalor of hard-drinking London lawyers: glittering and fierce and resolutely unsentimental, a glorious bonfire of a marriage thriller.
Lisa Lutz’s delicious The Swallows (Titan Books) works superbly as a #MeToo congruent fable about sexual intimidation, revenge porn, internalised misogyny and the need for violent female resistance: a must-read for teenage girls of all ages – and their brothers.
AS Hatch’s debut This Little Dark Place (Serpent’s Tail) is a spare, elegantly written chiller in the true Highsmithian register, with an inspired use of Brexit, first as an unearthly chill across the land and then as a frenzied, Brueghelian street party in a seaside town.
Jane Casey’s award winning Cruel Acts (Harper Collins) is psychologically acute, incisively detailed and relentlessly paced with a heart-stopping rooftop climax; the Maeve Kerrigan series just gets better and better.
John Connolly’s potent, turbulent blend of crime and supernatural fiction is on full display in A Book of Bones (Simon & Schuster), a Victorian-scale narrative infused with English folk mythology and an exceptional feel for landscape and setting.
Andrew Martin’s stylish, witty The Winker (Corsair) showcases the seediness and shabby elegance of 1970s London; it reads like a nasty, eccentric film starring David Hemmings and Charles Gray.
All of Mick Herron’s strengths are on display in Joe Country (John Murray), the latest Jackson Lamb thriller: scabrous comic dialogue, bravura action sequences and a quicksilver ability to shift through the gears from tragedy to farce.
Scrublands (Wildfire), Chris Hammer’s incendiary Outback-set debut, shares elements of the work of Jane Harper and Peter Temple; worth reading for the bushfire setpiece alone, it is ambitious in scale and scope, delivering right up to the last, powerfully moving, page.
Epic in conception and meticulously plotted, Alex Marwood’s The Poison Garden (Sphere) is a dystopian eco-thriller that speaks very much to the present moment; a distinctive, brilliantly imagined piece of work with a ruthless, resourceful heroine and an unexpectedly optimistic ending.
Louise Candlish’s trouble in suburban paradise tale Those People (Simon & Schuster) displays her keen, satirical eye for social hypocrisy as she arraigns her entitled, privileged characters with nuance and compassion.
The Sleepwalker (Doubleday), Joseph Knox’s brilliant third novel, displays all the virtues of a high-energy police procedural while being spiritually and tonally in thrall to classic PI fiction, with a cumulative hallucinatory power that borders on the uncanny.